A Writer’s Insight: Nancy Chen Long

Nancy Chen Long’s poem, “Narrative Is the Native Tongue of the Brain,” appears in the winter 2020 issue of The Southern Review. Here, she discusses drawing inspiration from the science of memory, integrating her research and creative processes, and the differing logics of poetry and math.

Preety Sidhu: “Narrative Is the Native Tongue of the Brain” considers both a car accident and how mutable the memory of that accident is in the brains of the people involved, and by extension how mutable our very selves and lives might be. Did you set out to write about one or the other of these elements, or did they coevolve during the writing process?

Nancy Chen Long: First, thank you for the invitation to do an interview. Well, I didn’t set out to write about the car accident specifically. However, I did have, in the back of my mind, ideas regarding the mutability of memory, as well as the role of memory with respect to identity, and by extension, mutability with respect to identity.

“Narrative Is the Native Tongue of the Brain” is one of the last poems that I wrote for my second book Wider than the Sky, forthcoming in March from Diode Editions. By that time in writing the manuscript, I was well into research regarding memory, the mind, the brain, and their connections to identity. The poem grew out of an interest in how the brain and memory are wired for narrative and, especially, how identity is tied to memory and the story we weave about ourselves. So that is where the poem originated—in the idea of narrative identity. Subsequent revisions of “Narrative” moved the focus to the mutability of memory and, since memory is a piecemeal sort of thing that gets updated/impacted/changed each time we access it, what that mutability might say about our identity. To me, one thing it suggested is that we create/recreate/change ourselves as we go along.

PS: This and your poem “Memory Reel” (TSR, Spring 2018) treat memory as both a deeply personal aspect of selfhood and a sometimes faulty neurobiological process. To what extent did research into the neuroscience of memory inform these poems? To what extent were they drawn from personal experience?

NCL: As mentioned above, “Narrative Is the Native Tongue of the Brain” originated more from research, since the research was, by then, well underway. While I was reading about the fragmentary aspects of memory and the prevalence of faulty memories, various examples in my own memory, as well as the memories of others, popped up, and one of those examples made its way into the poem.

“Memory Reel,” which was written two or three years before “Narrative,” originated from personal experience. “Memory Reel” was written early in the development of Wider than the Sky, the book in which it appears. When I started working on that manuscript, I thought the primary subject was about naming—how naming impacts our identities and how we see ourselves and others, and so on. Members of my family have numbers of names for each other, and so I started discussing with them why we are name prolific, which got us into discussing family memories and stories. It struck me how differently we remembered things. One family member in particular remembered doing things that the rest of us remembered someone else doing. There were even cases in which most of us remembered something major happening, while another family member insisted it never happened.

These conversations made me question the veracity of my own memories. I started writing poems around memory and could not write about much of anything else. At that point, I began to research memory. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered how we can really be sure if anything we remember happened in the way we remembered it. I woke up one morning during this time of family conversations with a bruise on my hand and no memory of how it got there. It led me to recall, for some reason, a memory of a boyfriend when I was a teenager. In my mind, the memory flows like a movie, and I wondered how much of that particular memory was “real.” I wondered how the boy’s memory of that night might differ from mine all these decades later. It was out of this that the poem “Memory Reel” was born.

PS: How do you integrate your research process with your creative process? Do the poems come to you after you fully research a topic, or as you are conducting the research? Or do the poem ideas come first, followed by research about some aspect you want to understand more fully before you complete the writing?

NCL: It seems to work best for me to start with poem ideas, writing whatever poems bubble up. Out of those poems, a driving or cohering subject arises that connects them, and that is how I best discover what my next overarching research project is. Research at that point invigorates and inspires me, and I then enter into a period of both poem writing and research. However, I have started a few times with rich and interesting research topics prior to writing any poems. With one of them, I even had an outline for the entire book. None of those efforts resulted in the creation of poems that I could keep, although there might have been one or two poems with salvageable lines. My current process feels more like a compulsion, something divined, rather than a conscious pursuit or selection.

PS: To what extent to do you feel your backgrounds in electrical engineering and business influence your practice as an artist?

NCL: My education and work experience were (are) both math and logic heavy, and that impacts what I write, as well as the way I revise. One place I like to linger is at the intersections of math, science, religion, and art, so those subjects, or something related to them, usually wiggles its way into my writing. Also, I find that those subjects play off of one another like steel balls in the pinball machine of my brain.

Even though there are differences, science, math, and poetry do have some things in common. For example, each one is a way of understanding. Also, for each of them, it helps to use your imagination. When I think about, say, irrational numbers, I definitely need to use my imagination. And math and poetry are in some ways quite kindred. One could think of math as a kind of language. And both poetry and math impart meaning through patterns, symbols, and even counting, for example syllabics and meter in poetry. There’s an elegance and a beauty to both poetry and math, a distillation that clarifies.

With respect to revising, when I start a poem, I don’t care much about anything except trying to map thoughts and feelings to words. However, when I revise a poem, I focus less on mapping content and more on the poem’s internal logic, which, for me, is not rational logic, but more like the logic of a dream, if that makes any sense. I guess you could say that I use constructs from math and logic as tools to corral some of the chaos of a poem. Perhaps constructs is too firm of a word . . . it’s more like gestures from math and logic.

PS: What are you working on next?

NCL: I’m currently working on a third manuscript of poems that explores perception as a generative act. So far, the manuscript contains some ekphrastic poems—poems that respond to a work of art. As a nonvisual person, I’m fascinated by how differently some of us see, and so another set of poems concerns what we see as individuals and how that differs—the physiology and psychology of seeing. A third set of poems is along the same lines and concerns what and how we hear. Of course, it’s early in the gestation period for this manuscript, and it might end up being something else entirely.

Nancy Chen Long is the author of Light into Bodies and Wider than the Sky, forthcoming from Diode Editions in March. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in Creative Writing. Her work was selected as the winner of the Poetry Society of America Robert H. Winner Memorial Award.

Preety Sidhu is the editorial assistant for The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in fiction at Louisiana State University. Originally from the eastern shore of Maryland, she earned a BA in Astronomy at Swarthmore College before working as an independent school math teacher in the New York and Boston areas. She is currently hard at work on her thesis, a novel.

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